When I was a toddler, my grandmother took over babysitting duties for a week while my parents went on a holiday. Nothing changed – mealtimes, bedtimes, bath times all rolled on with comfortable familiarity. There was just one notable exception: I wasn’t allowed to be outdoors during the day. That would render irreparable damage to my ‘fair’ complexion, you see, damaging my future (marriage) prospects and thereby my entire life. I was four.
Female fairness is a fetish in South Asia. I occasionally give in to hyperbole but this time, I’m understating. Nothing is as singularly valuable as a pale complexion: it eclipses grave flaws and enhances modest virtues. If you’re a woman ‘lucky’ enough to be born with fair skin, your life is half sorted. Social acceptance, praise, marriage proposals… sky’s the limit. And if you’re not, don’t despair! A myriad of altruistic beauty brands are at hand to erase all traces of darkness from your skin and by extension, your life. After all, this is a land where the phrase ‘dark BUT attractive’ is viewed as the height of magnanimity.
If you’re a woman ‘lucky’ enough to be born with fair skin, your life is half sorted. Social acceptance, praise, marriage proposals… sky’s the limit.
When it comes to miracle elixirs, Fair & Lovely occupies first place. I must have watched more than 100 separate TVCs growing up, all hammering the same message: a woman’s ultimate ambition is marriage – marriage is only possible if you’re lovely – you can only be lovely if you’re fair. A simple, succinct statement, that also happens to be vastly insidious and damaging.
There’s a lot to unpack here. First, the subtle implication that a woman is less than human. After all, a man is meant to learn, grow, work, achieve. But a woman? She cannot exist on her own. Unless she’s shackled to a man, she’s nothing. And to snag a said man, all she needs to do is park her brain at the door and look pretty. If she smears enough of this stuff on her face daily, she’ll eventually have a home and a husband; what else could she possibly need?
Second, that looks are paramount, not character. Perhaps the millions of parents working diligently to instil pesky notions like ideals and values in their offspring should give up and just get a lifetime sub to Fair & Lovely or its pale (see what I did there?!) imitators.
Third, within this toxic ideal prettiness has the narrowest of definitions, inextricably linked to the hue of one’s skin. Never mind that thousands of little girls are irrevocably harmed by this regressive claim and spend their lives frantically digging up ways to be fairer instead of focusing on their skills and their personalities, their own hopes and desires.
Those who wish to defend this category may point to the ‘evolution’ in fairness cream messaging over the last decade or so: instead of marriage, brands now tout the promise of a dream career that can be yours if you just buy and apply. What progress! Except that nothing’s changed and a woman’s self-worth is still reliant on her looks and specifically, her skin tone. This is a cosmetic change, superficially new but harbouring the same old biases. At the end, a woman still needs to invest in her appearance – mainly her skin colour – if she wants success.
Thousands of little girls are irrevocably spend their lives frantically digging up ways to be fairer instead of focusing on their skills and their personalities, their own hopes and desires.
Another platitude I sometimes hear is around choice: if a woman wants to be fair, that is her right! As a woman, I should support that right, not denigrate it. Except that women are lured, cajoled, scared and brainwashed into regarding fairness as some kind of talisman that will grant them all their wishes, by these same brands. Their natural confidence is undermined constantly by the barrage of advertising and society as a whole. It seems inevitable, then, that many of these women would succumb to the ‘promise’ of fairness as a remedy for all ills. This is indoctrination. Funnily enough, it’s even spilled over to men of late. Witness brands like ‘Fair & Handsome’ (points for originality!), endorsed by celebrities who – oddly enough – don’t seem especially ‘fair’ themselves.
I could carry on in this vein, perhaps write a screed on the universal preoccupation with looks, but I won’t because the ‘fairness’ conundrum is uniquely Asian and nearly completely female-focused. And it doesn’t matter an iota whether the promise is romantic, professional or social: ultimately it’s about diminishing the consumer, propagating vitriolic notions that affect the way women perceive and conduct themselves, and cementing ludicrous, outdated ideals in a society that’s already burdened by archaic beliefs.
Perhaps we should go a step further, mandate a minimum height requirement for eligible men (self-improvement shouldn’t be the sole province of women, after all), and start selling limb lengthening procedures next. How’s that for a business proposition? We can call it ‘Tall & Terrific’ ™!
Sara Amjad Qureshi is a marketing professional working in Pakistan.